1980s

In a State of Exile: ‘The Last of England’ in 1987

The year 1987 proved to be a pivotal time for Derek Jarman. After the agonizing and exhausting eight-year production of Caravaggio (1986), the artist and filmmaker had to contend with the illness and loss of his father. On December 22, 1986, Jarman confirmed that he was carrying the HIV virus; around the same time, he met Keith Collins, a man who would become his longstanding and closest companion, the backbone of his life and work. Against the backdrop of a hostile Thatcherite Britain and the impending Section 28 legislation, Jarman opted to move to Prospect Cottage, swapping London’s growing hostility for the desert at Dungeness and its looming nuclear power plant. Despite this restless period of personal tragedy and loving relationships, Jarman sought to make a film that visualised “the deep seated malaise in current Britain,” one that captures the zeitgeist of a country that was rapidly collapsing and that seemed to have sent him into an exile on the Kent coast. Ultimately, the aptly named The Last of England (1987) was to be a perfect consolidation of the work Jarman had made up until that point and was a marked springboard for the films he would go on to make until his death seven years later. Jarman experienced heartache and bittersweet change in 1987, but it was a year that would have a lasting effect, both on a personal level and on his creative trajectory, too.

The Last of England is not an ordinary film, even by Jarman’s standards. Having experienced the excruciatingly drawn-out making of Caravaggio, Jarman felt compelled to make films with a more urgent, home movie ethos, something that he had experimented with and mastered in his short films from the early 1970s. Caravaggio’s use of carefully scripted dialogue, professionally acted characters and judicious mise-en-scène at first felt as though Jarman was increasingly starting to construct films using more ordinary means, edging closer to the procedures of mainstream filmmaking — at least as close as he ever could. But, despite Caravaggio’s pictorial qualities, it seemed marred by the 17 rewrites and long-standing production that ultimately damaged the film’s narrative fluidity. The experience probably pointed out to Jarman — if he hadn’t already known — that raising funds for larger budgeted films would be very difficult, leaving Caravaggio as a project that questions what its director could really do if given enough resources and the freedom to properly make a film on his own terms.

The Last of England then, if anything, was a formal return to Jarman’s rough-and-ready Super 8 and DIY principles. It is a film that exploits fast editing techniques and a restless camera style, akin to the director’s music videos for the Pet Shop Boys or The Smiths. Those videos depict a London in dereliction, signified by harsh hues, superimpositions, bleak monochrome and the ramshackle buildings found in and around London’s desolate Beckton Gasworks. In The Last of England, Jarman’s painterly and constructed world of Caravaggio had turned into the bleak, apocalyptic commons of his own London, fitted with vignettes of balaclava-wearing terrorist militia, hopeless characters gnawing on raw cauliflower, weddings in abandoned factories and refugees huddled by garbage bins and bonfires. London looks like a prisoner of war camp in The Last of England, which was ironically filmed around the same locations at a similar time as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), a film that also exploits a sense of dereliction.

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Jarman describes The Last of England as being “closer to poetry than prose […] in contrast to word-bound cinema” and it feels, at the very least, like he was purposefully making a movie that fully rejects the filmmaking approach he had underwent when making Caravaggio. Ultimately, despite the bleakness found within The Last of England’s subject matter, there is a sense that Jarman is having more joy with this form of filmmaking, largely down to the freedom of which he was able to manipulate color, use juxtaposition and formulate arguments and ideas via the layered construction of moving images. This process is something he would go on to use again in War Requiem (1989) and The Garden (1990), films that managed to keep him creatively active despite facing debilitating illness. Jarman’s decision to make movies on his own terms, without the input from overbearing producers or the shackles of writing scripts, allowed him to fully and urgently confront the socio-political zeitgeist of mid-80s England. Thatcher was still in power; the malaise was manifest in London’s architecture; AIDS still represented a death sentence for hundreds of innocent young men — Jarman needed to act and needed to do so with a quick and immediate filmmaking style.

Jarman had always used art, and specifically film, to confront his sexuality, and he was one of only a handful of filmmakers that had contributed in the 70s to a growing New Queer Cinema, like Andy Warhol, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Chantal Akerman. His work that had explored the homosexual experience, like Sebastiane (1976) or The Angelic Conversation (1985), had often done so in a meditative, abstract fashion, exploring gay liberation and homoerotic desire as existing amongst oppressive environments. If Sebastiane is a bold appraisal of the male body that exploits the homoerotic as a means of reclaiming gay history then The Angelic Conversation shows Jarman grappling with changing attitudes towards homosexuality due to the advent of HIV and the rise of conservatism. Alongside The Last of England, it is notable that each film wrestles with exile, as characters are either ostracized from society or struggle to feel a belonging amongst a wildly unrecognizable landscape.

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By the time of Jarman’s diagnosis, he had completed The Last of England’s principle photography, but it was only in 1987 that would see him shape and edit the film into its vast bricolage of chopped up images, varied colors/tones and multi-dynamic forms. At the time of its making, AIDs had taken hold of the British zeitgeist whilst doom-laden advertisements, like Nicolas Roeg’s AIDS: Monolith (1987), continued the constant demonization of the disease. Jarman perhaps saw an opportunity to fully critique the nation’s languid response to the virus while firing a warning signal towards the direction of the country under its totalitarian, Thatcherite government. Unlike Roeg’s advert, Jarman uses the apocalyptic as a means of portraying the death of a nation, as its own inaction during the war on AIDS helped facilitate a world where belligerence, oppression and homophobia was accepted and even encouraged. If The Angelic Conversation portrays a time where loving affection could be found amongst the rubble of industrialization, then The Last of England shows how affection, love and hope are lost qualities of a paradisal past.

During the production of The Last of England, the proposal for Thatcher’s Section 28 had already been passed through parliament, and one can gather a sense of where the film’s need to protest is rooted. Unlike Sebastiane, the exile here seems more interred as Jarman juxtaposes his own struggle with AIDS alongside imagery referencing the generic fear of nuclear annihilation. The Last of England opens as Jarman is writing in a sketchbook in what could be a bunker or war-torn factory; the barren streets are comparable to those seen in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) or those in Full Metal Jacket. The camera sweeps around Jarman’s head, causing a dizzying and nauseating effect, and purports a confusion and constant danger, while fleeting glimpses of flickering lights through the room’s window help place viewers in a world of shadow and dereliction. Along with the other characters throughout the film, Jarman seems hemmed in and almost hiding — a complete social outsider. The whole scene has an air of finality about it, as if Jarman is writing a final letter before his death or the final entry into one of his diaries while a church bell acts as a kind of siren.

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The painting that gives Jarman’s film its name — Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England (1855) — explicitly explores exile by depicting a middle-class couple on a boat off the White Cliffs of Dover fleeing to one of Britain’s colonies. While Brown’s painting bids farewell to England in a physical way — like the many that fled England during that period, including Jarman’s own grandfather — The Last of England bids farewell in a more abstract fashion.

Throughout Jarman’s work, he would often compare present with past as a means to show how industrialization had destroyed the English landscape (and the landscape he had known from his youth), but it is in The Last of England where the filmmaker shows forthrightly his anger at the state of modern-day Britain, something he would ultimately continue to do in Edward II (1991) and through his increased association with gay rights organizations like Outrage! (1990-2011).

Jarman’s making of The Last of England coincided with his move to Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. His longstanding affiliation with gardening — which dates back to his childhood spent in Italy — could finally be realized while living here, and he cultivated a garden amongst the area’s desert and nuclear power plant. In some senses, this was Jarman’s own self-imposed exile: he opted to flee from the busy streets of London for the barren and hostile landscape of the Kent coastline, where he would often have to contend with his illness and the area’s imposing weather.

Prospect Cottage would come to be a key breeding ground for Jarman’s work, too, and would inspire his feature films (explicitly The Garden), continuing his confrontation with nature and ecology while drawing a genealogy between his present circumstances and his childhood. Similarly, in The Last of England, Jarman purposefully juxtaposes bleak imagery with colorful home movies, of which are seamlessly edited to fully contrast a desolate present against an idyllic past. The use of home movies, shot by his father in the 1940s and 50s, contrast colorful family gardens and vibrant holiday getaways against the film’s persistent, dull monochrome. Jarman’s use of striking color hues and bold filters is indicative of his inability to fully coalesce past with present, adding to his emotional longing for a past that is well and truly gone.

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War, military and the fear of nuclear bombings permeate the whole of The Last of England as Jarman refuses to reject the failures of the past. His inclusion of his father’s RAF films (particularly those seen from the perspective of one his Wellington bombers flying over Lossiemouth airfield) muddy the binary that the past was good and the present is bad. The use of footage of Britain’s occupation in Pakistan is brilliantly juxtaposed against references to the Falklands War and further points towards Jarman’s anger at how the country has managed to collapse in on itself and return to values that should have been well and truly buried.

Prospect Cottage and its garden, then, seems indicative of Jarman’s propensity to act against norms in order to make a wider point on the state of his life and the 80s mindset. If The Last of England uses the past as a fulcrum to criticize the present, then Jarman’s garden is a more wholehearted attempt at reclaiming the past on his own terms. Still desolate, still barren and still harsh, Prospect Cottage, nonetheless, is a testament at how Jarman could carve beauty out of the most unlikely of environments. The Last of England’s message and outlook may be bleak, but at least Jarman coincided the film with a garden project that ultimately offers a glimmer of hope amongst the stark state of Thatcherite Britain.

Despite the collapse of the country that Jarman documents in The Last of England, the years that followed were marked by an amazingly sustained period of prolificacy. Along with the series of pop music videos that Jarman had already begun to make throughout the 80s, he would start publishing diaries that detailed his illness, filmmaking, personal relationships and his time spent at Prospect Cottage; he would continue to cultivate a garden amongst the bare environment at Dungeness; he would return to painting, making many works related to Prospect Cottage and his experience with HIV; he would become a leading figure in gay rights activism and would crucially become one of the earliest openly HIV+ public figures. And he would make a series of feature films that were emblematic of his aptitude for making a great deal with very little resources.

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The year 1987 seems like a particular turning point in Jarman’s career, as he responded to a period of significant change to rally against the injustices of Section 28 and the Thatcher government. Jarman started to implement an even more politically-charged style that was stark, scary and almost prophetic. In exile, in his own failing body, out on the outskirts of the British coastline, in a country that demonized his very existence, there is a sad undertone to the filmmaker’s depiction of a world fading away. Against this backdrop, The Last of England was Jarman’s gauntlet and, in 1987, he hurled it at Thatcher and those that opposed him, and he did so at precisely the right time.

Edwin Miles (@eaj_miles) is a filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian from the West Midlands, United Kingdom. Now based in London, Edwin’s experimental work reflects on ideas of family and memory, home and displacement. His favourite filmmakers include Derek Jarman, David Lynch and Kazuhiro Sôda.